Global Geopolitical Power and African Political and Economic Institutions: When Elephants Fight
by John James Quinn (Zaire PCV/Staff 1983-86)
$116.00 (hardback); $54.99 (paperback);$52.00 (kindle)
Reviewed by Robert Hamilton (Ethiopia 1965-67)
Tembo, zikipigana huumia nyasi
(When two elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.)
Professor John James Quinn of Truman State University in Missouri is moderately hopeful that economic and political changes during the period 1990 to the present will bring continued marginal success for Africa.
Economic institutions in Africa changed after 1990 and the end of the Cold War, Quinn says. African states were in debt and they were forced by international lending organizations to undertake fiscal reforms, including the “removal of impediments to trade, and some privatization of previously state-owned companies.”
Still, Quinn notes, the African elite remains in control of large enterprises, and generally, a single majority party continues to control the state which controls major enterprises and is the major employer within African countries. These dominant parties don’t lose elections.
Given the size and complexity of Africa — it is more than three times larger than the continental U.S. — it is not surprising that there are some political scientists who are more optimistic about Africa’s political prospects than is Quinn, and there are some Africans who advocate, privately if not publicly, that Africa’s governments should embrace more of a Chinese or Vietnamese mix of one-party rule and capitalism
Although the major colonial powers in Africa — Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, and Portugal — did not introduce a democratic political model into their “spheres of influence” from approximately 1885 to 1945, they generally conceded to the post-WWII demands of African nationalists for independence without violent confrontation.
The African states which were established during the 1957-66 period had the opportunity to play one major power off against the other, but they generally followed the political lead of one of them in order to obtain financial, military, and technological assistance important to their development and trade.
Powerful “Western” states developed a new “set of incentives” which included a new set of “constraints and opportunities” which were offered to “weaker nations such as those in sub-Saharan Africa.” Leaders of weaker states had to accept the new geopolitical reality; new “ideas, norms, and sets of incentives along with the newly drawn lessons associated with these changes in order to maximize their domestic power.” Quinn states that whichever model — democratic capitalist or one-party socialist/communist — was chosen, African leaders (and would-be leaders) had to modify their own policies and positions to show that they were capable of rewarding the African electorate and meeting their expectations. The relationships between international systems and leaders and weaker states and leaders is “multilayered.” “However, these changes reflect many incentives of many actors, so the more radical the change at the geopolitical center, the more radical the changes will be throughout the larger system.”
When Elephants Fight is a lengthy explanation of how African politicians and elected leaders have dealt with an imposed hierarchical relationship even as their citizen constituents have developed new and greater social service expectations (e.g. modern schools, clinics, transportation) without delays or corruption and with greater independence from U.S. or World Bank demands via Structural Adjustment Programs which have increased the price of basic foodstuffs, petrol, and electricity.
Students taking Quinn’s course and charged with producing term or semester papers — or even a Master’s thesis — and needing to understand these complex “hierarchical relationships,” may find the scholarly language he relies upon to be a challenge, but they can benefit from the structure of the book: the sub-chapter headings; the extensive footnotes associated with each chapter; the “Conclusions” associated with each chapter; and the long bibliography.
The Index is basic and functional.
This reviewer found the text of the book dense, but his understanding of the logic Quinn employs improved when he began each chapter by first reading the Conclusion.
Robert E. Hamilton (Ethiopia, 1965-67) is a consultant to business, medical, and educational projects relating to Africa. He lives in Portland, Oregon. Cell: 503-320-5994; email: email@example.com. A longer review of this book is available upon request.